By: Brian Tang
The homelessness crisis in Los Angeles has been revisited by the federal and local government several times over the course of the past century, but it is still a complex issue that has been insufficiently addressed by policymakers and remains largely unsolved. In order to provide more appropriate solutions for today’s homelessness crisis, we must first examine the history of homelessness in Los Angeles so that we may better understand the roots of modern homelessness and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. To obtain the information and statistics present throughout this article, I draw upon a report written by Kirsten Sheeley, Alisa Katz, Andrew Klein, Jessica Richards, Fernanda Verri, Marques Vestal, and Zev Yaroslavsky. Their report, The Making of a Crisis: A History of Homelessness in Los Angeles, was published in January 2021 and grew out of previous work by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy on the history of rent control in Los Angeles. According to their report, the history of the homelessness crisis can generally be divided up into three periods: the Great Depression and World War II, the Postwar Era, and the 1980s to the present.
The homeless population in Los Angeles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century consisted mostly of poor white men, including native-born individuals and European immigrants. Many of these white men travelled westwards in search of new jobs, eventually deciding to stay in a neighborhood that later became known as Skid Row. Because they were deemed a threat to social order, these transient men were systematically arrested, leading to the early expansion of Los Angeles’s carceral system. Unemployment rates soon skyrocketed as a result of the Great Depression in the 1930s, expanding the homeless population to include those with mental illness as well as skilled and white-collar workers. Additionally, people of color were disproportionately affected—many individuals of color lived in segregated housing markets, unable to pay periodically increasing rent prices and becoming homeless as a result. The city didn’t have many public shelters at the time, so many homeless peoples were forced to turn to private institutions for food and shelter. Unfortunately, these private shelters were often cramped, strict, and segregated. They also offered no long-term accommodations.
As a result, much of the homeless population was deterred from these private shelters. Skid Row eventually became a place where many homeless peoples decided to stay and offer their services as cheap labor. Unsurprisingly, the city responded by aggressively policing the homeless and forcibly pushing them out of Skid Row. When this proved to be futile, the city implemented a statewide camp program that allowed homeless men to volunteer without pay for fire prevention activities in winter camps in exchange for food, clothes, and shelter; the program proved to be mostly ineffective until it was expanded by the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933. Over time, homeless people responded by building their own makeshift shelters from scraps and other cheap materials, and many shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles” were founded.
These Hoovervilles served as shelter for the homeless during the majority of the Great Depression but were mostly destroyed by the city before the early 1940s. During World War II, state investments in the defense industry brought Los Angeles out of the Depression and even caused the city to become the second largest defense production center in the country. This attracted a great number of migrants in search of jobs, leading to a large increase in the city’s population and contributing to a severe housing shortage. Luckily, in response to this shortage, the federal government implemented new temporary and permanent public housing as well as a newly established rent control plan that lasted until 1950.
The Postwar Era during the 1940s to the late 1970s saw a growth in the city’s Black population by a factor of ten without an accompanying increase in housing, leading to dense, segregated Black neighborhoods and financial redlining; African Americans were largely overrepresented in the city’s homeless population and disproportionately affected by housing insecurity. Furthermore, the influence of racial biases resulted in city priorities being aimed towards rebuilding and revitalizing downtown structures at the expense of the low-income and homeless population, who were deemed a threat to downtown property values. Forming alliances such as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), private businesses and real estate interests grew in power, pressuring the city to fund urban renewal projects that demolished housing and inserted freeways through redlined neighborhoods and split predominantly Black and Latinx working-class communities. Even though people of color were adversely affected by these issues, the primary targets of homeless policy and social reform during this time period were unemployed white men, particularly those living in Skid Row. Moreover, government policy became more focused on surveilling and disciplining the homeless instead of safely relocating them into housing, ignoring the structural causes of homelessness. The city sought to contain the homeless population within Skid Row through policing and physical buffers, increasing enforcement of minor public order infractions such as loitering and building code violations.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the deinstitutionalization of mental health care contributed to a large increase in the homeless population as many low-income patients were discharged from state mental hospitals without a family or other support system to turn to. Many ended up on Skid Row with nowhere else to go. Community mental health centers also subsequently suffered from a lack of coordination between state, county, and local government, receiving inconsistent and poorly distributed funds. Private and non-profit organizations attempted to make up for this lack of public mental health services through governmental partnerships, but this really only encouraged short-term solutions such as emergency hospital care. According to Dr. Coley King, Venice Family Clinic’s director of homeless health care, the homelessness crisis of today is largely due to LA County’s failure to provide adequate shelter and move people off the streets. He claims that the homeless population is especially vulnerable to developing post traumatic stress, depression or anxiety, and drug addictions, all of which further deteriorate quality of life and make escaping homelessness even more difficult. Law enforcement officers are also unfairly tasked with the burden of responding to these mental health crises but do not receive the necessary training to do so.
Rising unemployment rates, expensive housing, and deinstitutionalization of mental institutions contributed to the “new homelessness” population of the 1980s, bestowing Los Angeles as “the homeless capital of America” in 1984. Criminalization of the homeless and housing inequalities, along with unsuccessful governmental coordination of policy implementation, continued to disproportionately affect people of color. In addition, Skid Row remained a target of containment by the city. Funds were sent to preserve housing units within Skid Row, effectively keeping its low-income and homeless population away from the upscale part of downtown. On top of that, increasing immigration from Latin America and East Asia, the recession of the early 1980s, and the crack cocaine and HIV/AIDS epidemic all expanded Los Angeles’s homeless population and forced many to end up in jail, especially the mentally ill. By the late 1980s, many African Americans were forced to migrate to Skid Row, surpassing the white population in numbers and making up a majority of the homeless population there. Over time, the containment strategy proved to be unsustainable as the homeless population continued to grow in Skid Row, which was accompanied by an increase in Skid Row businesses who opposed the homeless population there. Government officials continued to struggle to find a solution for the homelessness crisis, failing to amend county rules that made it difficult for homeless people to enroll in welfare programs such as General Relief. The crisis was out of control, and there were too many issues that needed to be tackled. The easiest and cheapest solution for the city was always to send in the police to deal with the homeless population.
Matters were made worse when another recession hit Los Angeles in the early 90s, causing tax revenues to plummet; General Relief funds were significantly reduced as a result. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund was created in 2002, but it was unable to sustain a considerable amount of funding. The expansion of the mortgage market and corporatization of real estate in the 2000s worsened the housing affordability crisis and drove up rent, causing almost 150,000 properties to be foreclosed. Additionally, the lack of a proper mental health support system resulted in many mentally ill homeless people to continue ending up in Los Angeles County jail, which was unprepared to handle their needs. Even though multiple studies showed that funding permanent supportive housing yields beneficial cost savings, policing and incarceration still remained the city’s primary strategies for dealing with homelessness in the early 2000s. It has only been recently that the city’s leaders have begun to seriously consider the size and scope of necessary responses to homelessness. The public has also started to become more aware of the homelessness crisis and more eager to help solve the issue.
Today, people of color remain the majority of the region’s homeless population—African Americans make up 34% of LA County’s homeless population but just 8% of the general population, while Latinx-identified people make up 36% of the homeless population and 48% of the general population. People of color are also the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic due to crowded living conditions and limited access to healthcare. In response to this pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom created Project Roomkey, a program designed to house homeless Californians in motel and hotel rooms, prioritizing those over the age of 65 and those with preexisting health conditions. However, initial reports indicate that the project fell short of its goal to house 15,000 individuals by about 11,000. Despite this setback, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) proposed an $800 million COVID-19 Recovery Plan to permanently rehouse the homeless who weren’t able to benefit from Project Roomkey. In general, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless population, quick testing and distribution of vaccines is essential. The pandemic has devastated small businesses and put millions of people out of work, leading to a spike in homelessness even after the implementation of a partial eviction moratorium by the county. Census data reveals that rates of homelessness have increased by 13% in Los Angeles County from 2020 to 2021, despite multiple attempts to alleviate the crisis.
Overall, throughout the history of homelessness in Los Angeles, federal, state, and local authorities have regularly attempted to mitigate factors exacerbating homelessness, such as housing shortages caused by rising property values and rents and deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. However, these initiatives were often only temporary solutions that were changed and replaced in response to shifts in budgets, public sentiment, and political climate. The overrepresentation of private business and real estate interests, combined with the complex, overlapping structure of local government, have hindered progress on crucial issues such as the development of affordable housing and accessible medical care for the homeless. To make up for this apparent lack of services, various private and nonprofit organizations have stepped in when necessary, creating a “patchwork” of provision that is still prevalent today. Aggressive policing and incarceration still remain the city’s primary methods of managing the homelessness crisis, even when numerous studies have proven that funding permanent supportive housing is a much more effective and cheaper alternative. Moreover, racially discriminatory employment practices and housing policies have perpetuated poverty among communities of color, causing African Americans and Latinx-identified people to comprise a majority of the homeless population since the 1980s. The history of homelessness is inextricably linked to structural racism, which has laid the groundwork for the broadening homeless population throughout the years. It is clear that racial justice must be properly served before the homelessness crisis can be completely solved.
It is also important to note that we must first understand the history of homelessness in Los Angeles before we can take the necessary steps to thoroughly address this issue. Housing is a basic human right that should be provided or made affordable to everyone regardless of race or social class. As undergraduates who attend UCLA and members who are part of Heart in Hand LA, it is imperative that we do our part to create safer living conditions for the vulnerable populations of Los Angeles. We must continue to provide health and social resources to the homeless, undocumented, and ethnic minorities while simultaneously raising awareness about social injustice and advocating for meaningful change. Another way that we can get involved is to advance grass-roots home building initiatives, such as the L.A. Community Action Network’s Ecohood project. This project aims to construct sustainable housing on empty or underutilized government land as well as ensure proper hygiene within existing homeless encampments. If we do not take action, the homelessness population will continue to suffer as they have been for over a century.
Lastly, I must acknowledge that I could not have written this blog without the help of the report written by Kirsten Sheeley, Alisa Katz, Andrew Klein, Jessica Richards, Fernanda Verri, Marques Vestal, and Zev Yaroslavsky for the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy. In addition to providing more extensive information about the history of homelessness in Los Angeles, they discuss detailed policy recommendations that address the lack of affordable housing and offer potential solutions to this homelessness crisis.